Leo Damrosch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($27)

by Spencer Dew

To celebrate the inauguration of America’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson supporters in Philadelphia roped a bison to a tree, riddled it with bullets and hacked it apart with an ax. Political spectacle here takes on the shape of terrifying religious ritual or, depending on your sympathy, mob madness. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in reference to another such spectacle—a bloodless Fourth of July parade, where associations of laborers trudged along behind a flag from the Revolutionary War, a handful of veterans, and “a richly decorated float bearing the first press that was used to print the Declaration of Independence”—“in our [French] fetes there is more brilliance, and in those of the United States, more truth.” The explication of such truth, the analysis of how a political system shapes the lives of its citizens and how political ideals are warped by lived application, became Tocqueville’s goal. He and his friend and colleague Gustave de Beaumont realized, during their nine months in country, that they were destined to speak to far more than the state of the American penitentiary system they had officially been sent over to inspect.

This slim book by Leo Damrosch “seeks to bring that traveler and that world to life, through Tocqueville’s own highly perceptive observations at the time and through the wealth of comments on Jacksonian America made by a host of contemporaries, especially other foreign visitors who published book-length accounts.” These parallel sources—including, for instance, Charles Dickens’s reflections on his American travels—not only provide for a more textured sense of American society, they also serve to highlight, via contrast, the sympathy and sharpness of Tocqueville, this self-described “pitiless questioner” intent not just on witnessing but on understanding American culture. Even more revealing are Tocqueville’s voluminous correspondence and notes, from his field notes (scribbled in handwriting so cramped he called it “rabbit turds,” collected “in little notebooks that he folded and stitched by hand”) to his marginal notations. Damrosch, in drawing on materials as-yet-unavailable in English translation, is able to offer a rich portrait of Jacksonian American while guiding his readers along Tocqueville’s intellectual journey as well as his physical travels.

Tocqueville, as a Frenchman, knew that the quest for liberty and equality could lead to new forms of repression, and such concerns guided his work in America, where he and Beaumont acted as “investigative reporters,” talking to people famous and unknown, from Josiah Quincey and Sam Houston to a wide variety of charming young ladies at formal balls and a particular forest-dwelling hermit who kept a pet bear. From New York (where they lamented the lack of a grand skyline) to the edges of the frontier (where real Indians fell repeatedly short of their romantic ideals), the two friends sought to crack this “nation of paradox, of individualists who were deeply conformist,” of citizens who valued freedom yet owned other humans, of society women who surrendered autonomy at marriage, and of a federal government that drew its strength from decentralization. His curiosity was matched by passionate appreciation for both ideas and the intricacies of lived culture. It’s a joy to hear his rapt appreciation of the American vernaculars and his connection of such perpetual reshaping of language to the mindset of democracy. While, like his contemporaries, he relies on some crackpot theories (that human behavior is tied to climate, for instance), his penetrating take on Puritan values remains pertinent today, and there is certainly something refreshing in his admiration for American practical intelligence. Sure, he observes, there is no literature or philosophy to speak of in this country, but “‘I doubt that More would have written his Utopia if he had been able to realize some of his dreams in English government, and I think the Germans of our own day wouldn’t philosophize so passionately about universal truth if they could put some of their ideas into political practice.’” Though later in life he would seek to apply some of the lessons of the American system of government to France, he remains far from utopian in his general assessment of democracy.

In democracy there was danger of tyranny by the majority. Public opinion, freely expressed, could lead to a form of oppression unlike those seen before in Europe. “A self-governing people could internalize rigid attitudes and inhibitions, and in effect police its own behavior,” Damrosch writes. RevisingDemocracy in America for the second edition, Tocqueville had a firmer grasp on the risks at play in democracy. In a note he wrote, “New despotism. It is in the portrayal of this that resides all the originality and depth of my idea. What I said in my first work was hackneyed and superficial.” In Tocqueville’s vision of the political future, terms like “despotism” and “tyranny” become archaic, even quaint–like a prison he visited in Pennsylvania, described in a guidebook as “the only edifice in this country which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middles ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe.” Indeed, for Tocqueville, a prison designed, on the outside, to look like so much “scenery” and constructed, internally, as a panopticon for constant surveillance and control of the convicts, stands as a useful metaphor of his own theories. As he formulates it, “an immense tutelary power” operates at the controls of American life, one that “would resemble paternal power if its object was to prepare men for adult life, but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in permanent childhood. It likes citizens to enjoy themselves, so long as all they think about is enjoyment.”

This notion remains prescient. Indeed, as history progresses, we see more and more ways in which Tocqueville’s original insights prove true. The new form of oppression he warned about—a democratic society lulled into placation by titillations and amusements, the illusion of diverse opinions and dispersed systems of control—remains the oppression we, as citizens, must struggle against, though even this “struggle” can denigrate to essentially empty theatrics. While many details have changed since Tocqueville’s visit—Damrosch offers a depressing comparison between the environs of Detroit in 1831 versus the polluted urban landscape there today—the political dynamics he identified remain. And while no one is soon likely to massacre a buffalo as political celebration (or protest), such spectacles continue, evidence both of the vitality Tocqueville witnessed and the grave dangers he warned against.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010